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Why Inslee's presidential bid hasn't caught fire (yet)

Washingto state Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to reporters after announcing his candidacy for president at A&R Solar in Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood, March 1, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The race for the Democratic nomination for president is a marathon, not a sprint. That is very good news for Jay Inslee.

Six weeks ago, the 21st governor of Washington state stood at about 1% in the polls against about 20 announced or likely opponents. Today, after raising well over $2 million and doing a couple of whirlwind tours of key Democratic states and meeting national media he stands at about … 1% in the polls against a slightly larger field of competitive Democrats.

There are three tiers of candidates. At the top are Bernie and Joe. In March, I predicted that Sanders would show much stronger than many people thought: “As with Donald Trump, his support runs far deeper than the D.C. crowd realized when they were writing him off as someone whose use-by date ran out in 2016.” 

Sure enough, Sanders raised more than $18 million in the first quarter, and got a fresh burst of momentum by being the first 2020 candidate to appear on a Fox News Town Hall and standing his ground.

I’ve never understood the reluctance of Democrats to appear on Fox News; it’s a guaranteed winner. First, they have nowhere to go but up with the Fox audience, which is mostly, but not exclusively, Republican. Second and more important, it shows that they are unafraid to defend liberal ideas on conservative turf. That makes them look gutsy. People in general like that, especially Democrats looking for a fighter. Sure enough, money and momentum immediately followed Bernie’s Fox News appearance, and now Amy Klobuchar is clamoring to get on, along with Pete Buttigieg and other candidates.

Polls had showed Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden in the mid-to-high 20s, combining for than 50 percent of the Democrats’ support (I thought the Republicans were supposed to be the party of Old White Men). Biden had been leading, but that changed after he absorbed two weeks of body blows for a long history of unwelcome clutching of females at receptions, rallies and ceremonies over the years. A Stop Sanders movement has started within establishment Democratic circles, similar to the Stop Trump movement that rose, but ultimately collapsed, among establishment Republicans in 2020.

In the next tier are Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg, all polling in the mid-to-high single-digit figures. But it’s Buttigieg with the chance to break out, thanks to his unique profile: a married gay millennial with a distinguished military record and sterling education credentials (Rhodes Scholar). In terms of political accomplishment, his resume is, well, less than impressive: second-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana, where crime has risen steadily on his watch and the murder rate now exceeds Chicago’s. But our last three presidents also had slender — and in the case of businessman Donald Trump, zero — political accomplishments on their resumes. 

It is in the final tier where we find Jay Inslee, with former Congressman John Delaney; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is running as the Latino Obama (it’s not working); former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose moderation guarantees that he’ll stay on the sidelines; and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. The third tier candidate with the greatest chance of moving up is Andrew Yang, a 44-year-old wealthy tech entrepreneur who has run virtually his entire campaign on social media. When he showed up at a rally in San Francisco last month, 3,000 people were waiting to hear him. He’s connecting with a lot of liberal voters who don’t feel connected to the Democratic Party.

The Inslee strategy was to grow his numbers as Beto O’Rourke began to fade (which is already happening),  move into the second  tier with Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, and eventually fight his way into the Final Four. But why isn’t he breaking into the second tier?

Three reasons. First, Inslee is a white, older, male with a wonderful wife and pedestrian liberal views. Yes, Bernie Sanders is an even older white married man, but he has been a socialist and an outsider for years. In short, he’s authentic, the real deal for people who want an outsider who will challenge the power structure in both political parties. In years past, Jay’s personal bio would have been reassuring. This year it’s boring.

Second, climate change is an important issue, but to help Jay Inslee it needs to be the issue. It guarantees media coverage, young volunteers and green money, but others are crowding his turf, preventing him from owning it outright. And there is an issue that is more important: being a genuine outsider. The three candidates with the most momentum, Bernie Sanders in Tier 1, Pete Buttigieg in Tier 2 and Andrew Yang in Tier 3 are completely outside the political vineyards, where Jay Inslee has been happily toiling for 30 years.

On the financial front, Jay has raised over $2.5 million, which at a distance is impressive. But look closer. Most of that money is low hanging fruit from supporters of his here in Washington (including Nick Hanauer and my favorite travel author Rick Steves), and it’s coming in large chunks (average donation: over $200). Bernie’s average donation is closer to $20. 

Third, while he’s had all the media appearances a good Democrat could want — love letters from the Washington Post and appearances on CBS Morning News, MSNBC, ABC with George Stephanopoulos, Comedy Central, Bill Maher and CNN’s town hall — he hasn’t shone as brightly as others, particularly Buttigieg. And in some cases, he’s stumbled. When he was asked at the CNN town hall about recycling – a layup for the former Ingraham High basketball state champion — Inslee simply flubbed it: “I don’t have an answer to that. But next time we meet, I’m going to have a better approach.” 

Then there’s his switcheroo on the Boeing tax breaks of 2013, captured well by Crosscut’s Melissa Santos, which Inslee initially bragged about as “a great step forward for the state of Washington.” But now he essentially says he was extorted, or even worse: “If you’ve ever been mugged, you understand what it feels like….These corporations put a gun to your ribs and say you’re going to lose 20,000 jobs unless you get [them] a tax break.”

But it was Inslee who called the legislative special session to make these tax breaks happen, it was Inslee who called wavering lawmakers to bring them onboard, and it was a beaming Inslee, flanked by lawmakers, business and union leaders who signed it into law.

Whining now that he was mugged doesn’t exactly cut a profile of a strong, resolute executive ready for the ultimate job promotion. 

The good news is that these missteps didn’t seem to cost him much support. The bad news is that he doesn’t have much support to lose. There is time to recover and grow. But as a political startup, he is underperforming and missing his benchmarks.

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Why Inslee's presidential bid hasn't caught fire (yet)

About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson is a columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.